Friday, November 29, 2013

A Gentle Reminder On Black Friday

I've mentioned before that I work in clothing retail as my day job. Most of the year, this is not a terrible job, although I wish (as most people do) that I got paid more. There is one day out of the year though that makes everyone in this industry cringe: Black Friday.

You've heard the horror stories of the Walmart employee who was trampled to death, and of the customer who used pepper spray on other shoppers.

Thankfully, I don't work in a discount department store, so I haven't seen craziness like that in my Black Friday experiences. But these instances are far too common, and I think it really detracts from the spirit of the season.

Black Friday shopping is not the Hunger Games. Everyone can leave the store happy at the end of the day. Let's all try to be compassionate and kind to our fellow shoppers and to the men and women who have devoted their holiday weekend to providing you excellent customer service.

Thanksgiving is the start of a season all about compassion and love, so let's try to remember that as we begin our holiday shopping. Be kind to one another and you will have a much more pleasant experience over all. That's not just true on Black Friday, but on everyday of the year.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Feast  
Photo by StarMama via creative commons on Flickr.
For all of my American readers, I would like to wish everyone a happy and safe holiday filled with family, delicious food and gratitude.

Personally I am spending my holiday at home with my family, enjoying all of my favorite foods. I am so thankful that I get to celebrate in this way and appreciative of all the love and support my family has offered me not only this year but throughout my life. 

And of course, I am thankful for those of you out there reading this blog! I hope you enjoy the articles I post and I thank you wholeheartedly as you continue to support my fledgling writing career.

Enjoy your holiday!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book 18: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Red Tent is a novelized version of Dinah's story from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. It begins with the story of her four mothers and then goes on to tell the story of her life. Dinah's life is unfortunate and dominated by violence. This was no secret, I knew going into the book the sort of story I would be reading.

What I didn't expect, however, was to be more drawn to the story of Dinah's mother than her own. In the beginning, as I read about the four sisters, the book held my attention and I wanted to continue reading. Once the focus shifted to Dinah's adolescence and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding her marriage, my interest began to wane and I found it more difficult to pick up the book.

I will say that the book is successful in that it allows the reader to imagine the lives of Biblical women in new ways. It adds more depth to the story and makes the reader contemplate what life was like in those days.

However, this is not the type of book I generally reach for and since I did find it difficult to make it to the end I will likely not pick it up again.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Listen: Your Characters Are Talking To You

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

You'll see that question a lot this month because of NaNoWriMo. Personally, I don't feel I fit into either category. I've been working on a novel manuscript for about five months now, and while I have a solid idea of the direction it's going, the specifics only come to me as I'm writing.

Because of some computer problems, I've been writing this novel on an old manual typewriter, so instead of a Word document, I just have a pile of pages sitting to the left of my desk, waiting for me to clean them up and edit them.

This particular pile of pages has been antagonizing me because even though I numbered them, they're still out of order. Here's why: the novel follows the intertwining stories of five young people and around the time when my computer started acting up and I switched to the typewriter, I was having trouble getting one of them to tell me his story (We'll call him D). I had decided it was time for D to speak up and take the stage, but he wasn't ready. The pages I had written about him were flat and I knew immediately that they would have to be cut. I wasn't ready to cut them yet, because I still wanted D to tell me his story, and so I left them in the pile with the others, messing up my page count and causing me annoyance whenever I thought about it.

Several weeks (and dozens of pages) later, I sat at my typewriter trying to find the words for my main character (We'll call her A) when a sentence flashed across my brain. It was from the point of view of D, and I pushed it aside because it was still A's turn. She was in the middle of a crucial scene and it didn't make sense for him to be interrupting. But D was persistent: the sentence continued to flash across my brain until I finally pecked the letters out on the typewriter. 

I ended up writing several pages about D and now I am deeply entrenched in his story like I wanted to be earlier in the novel. It is flowing and makes more sense in the narrative now. I would have saved myself so much stress if I had only listened to my characters in the first place. 

I'll still have to go back and finish A's scene and make it tie in with D's story, but that's what second drafts are for. The beauty of a typewriter too is that I can always rearrange the pages if I need to. Who knows where I would be if I hadn't listened to D and continued trying to force A's story to unfold? 

Next time you're stuck on a scene try sitting quietly for a few minutes and listen for your characters to tell you where they want to go. After all, it's their story, you're just the scribe.

Have you ever had an experience like this? How do you get your characters to talk to you?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Book 17: Iron House by John Hart

Iron House is about two brothers who grew up in an orphanage and become separated when one of them commits a murder.  Twenty years later, they have to return to that place. One of the brothers (who the story mostly revolves around) is conflicted because he is trying to protect both his pregnant girlfriend and his brother, but the nature of the story is that one is always in danger while he is trying to rescue the other.

As a matter of personal taste, this is not the kind of book I would normally pick up. A family member gave it to me and I decided to give it a try anyway. Having just finished reading Freedom, the writing just wasn't up to the standard I was looking for. I went from some seriously intense, beautiful language that kept my attention even on off-putting topics, to a clunky murder not-quite-mystery story with a predictable ending and dull language.

I don't like to write negative reviews, so I'm going to keep this short. Basically, I didn't love this book because it's not the type of thing I usually seek out. I'm not a murder mystery reader, but when I pick one up I don't want to know the ending by the third chapter. If I'm going to read a suspense thriller, I want to be kept on the edge of my seat. 

If you're like me, and want strong writing and interesting characters in your novels, regardless of genre, you probably won't like this book very much. However, if you like thrillers you may like this book, or another by this author (he's won a handful of Edgar Awards, so maybe this was just not the best place for me to start with his work).

Have you read this book? What did you think?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Writing Groups Gone Wrong

I haven't had a lot of luck with writer's circles in the past. My first one, which I joined in college, was a serious disaster.

At the time I joined it, I was dabbling with a science-fiction piece based on a dream I'd had. It wasn't the kind of thing I usually write - I fully acknowledged at the beginning of the workshop that this was not my genre of choice and that it was only a thought experiment. Still, my fellow writers (maybe because I'd admitted to being shaky in the sci-fi genre) tore my story to pieces, leaving constructive criticism by the wayside and going for the personal attacks instead (as in: "This has been done a thousand times!" "This is the worst sci-fi I've read in a long time.")

I was fully aware that the story had problems. The science didn't make sense. The timeline was a little shaky. The idea was based on a dream and it showed -- it made sense as you were reading but once you stopped to think about it you were lost. 

The issue I took was that none of the feedback I got from my writing circle was helpful. Most of it was downright insulting. Rather than get feedback from a group of writers (who mostly wrote sci-fi) as to how to improve my little experiment, I was told to scrap this project and start something else -- I was clearly never going to be good at writing sci-fi, so why was I bothering?

I'd like to say that I never went back after that first meeting, but ever the optimist, I returned and got to critique some truly terrible stories. I say that now, but I really tried at the time to stick to constructive criticism.

I gave up after a few weeks because I felt like no one was interested in getting better or supporting one another. In my mind constructive criticism is the key to a successful writing group. If something is wrong with what I'm working on, I absolutely want to hear about it, but I want that feedback to come in a way that helps me to improve my craft. 

The purpose of any writing group should be to support one another and hone your craft, not tear each other down and discourage our peers from experimentation. We writers are sensitive creatures after all.

Have you had terrible experiences with writing groups? Great experiences? Tell us about them in the comments.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Book 16: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I picked up a copy of Freedom at my local indie bookstore in early June. I had heard good things about the novel, though I'd never read any of Franzen's work before. In fairness it was a purchase born out of weakness: I had just gone through a big breakup and this line from the cover copy felt like it was written for me: "It is a story about the human heart, and what it leads us to do to ourselves and each other."

I began reading as soon as I got home and finished it in only a few days. Every time I sat down to read, I had to plan on reading 50 to 100 pages, because once I committed to reading "for a bit" I would become completely engrossed in the story. I found it difficult to come up for air once I had begun.

The novel tells the story of the Berglund family: Walter, Patty, Joey and Jessica and their assorted romantic and political interests over the course of several years. It is a dense book, filled with ideas and more politics than I care for, but at the center of it there are characters that you can't help but relate to.

Through all of the passages about birds and the Iraq war, the thing that kept me turning the pages were the characters. They were so well drawn and interesting that I had to find out what would happen to them. That's not to say that the book is overrun with dull passages, only that when I hit a section that ordinarily would have made me put the book down for a bit, I was compelled to continue reading anyway.

Having finished this book, I wanted to jump in and read more of Franzen's work, which is how I happened to be in the middle of The Corrections when he went on his latest rant against Twitter. But more on that later. 

For now, just take my recommendation: Freedom is a great book with really interesting characters. It'll feel like a quick read because you won't be able to put it down until you get to the last page.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Refocusing My Vision

Photo by me. Marginal Way, Ogunquit Maine.

Originally when I changed the name of this blog to "Finding My Voice" I had this idea that this described only my journey as a writer. Ironic, then that the "Finding My Voice" blog has found me eerily silent over the last few months. Maybe I felt that since I'm still unpublished no one would care to read what I had to say about writing. Maybe I just found that I didn't have enough to say on the topic. At the beginning of this year I began the 100 Books Project, which is still in progress, but because I've been living in the woods for the last 6 months (Walden style) I've been unable to post reviews of books as I finish reading them.

Thanks to a change of circumstance, I'm back online now, so I'd like to get back to work here. Thing is, there's a lot more I'd like to write about and discuss than reading and writing. Literature will still be my primary focus, but as I'm also interested in fashion, handmade crafts, nature, simple living, and food, I'll be writing about those things too. 

As a writer I think it's so important to step away from the page occasionally and indulge in the things that inspire us so that when we return to the writing we feel refreshed and excited about our work.

On another note, in my personal journey, I have been finding that exploring my own interests has helped me to better express myself and put a more solid picture of my future together. I've personally been pursuing the things that interest me as a way to help me find my voice not just as a writer but as a young adult in this world and you'll start to see more of that here on the blog.